If you’ve made the decision to take on an ex-racehorse, what are the first steps that you should take in its training? We ask the experts for their advice.
Patience: give them time to settle in
It will depend on several things — the time of year, your own situation and whether the horse has come straight out of training. But the crucial thing to remember is that this horse has had its life turned completely upside down by leaving the racing world, and it will need time — and patience — to settle into its new surroundings.
Matthew Heath spent much of his early life in racing — his father Trevor is head lad to trainer Paul Webber — and has had a lot of experience of working with ex-racehorses.
He says: “I do think giving them an opportunity to unwind for two or three weeks in the field is good, especially at this time of year, but the most important thing is routine. Most racing yards have a strict routine, and that is what these horses are used to. It is important not to take away everything that they are used to in one go.”
Victoria Bax, who specialises in buying ex-racehorses and turning them into eventers, is keen that the horses which come to her yard have some “let-down time”.
“If they have raced on the Flat in particular they have had a busy old life, and don’t really get to ‘be a horse’ in their first few years. But how long they get turned out for will depend on how they adapt and how well behaved they are.”
She worms them, has a physiotherapist assess them, and checks whether their teeth need attention.
How, having decided that you want to take on an ex-racehorse, do you find one? And what do you need…
Ride them everyday if possible
Once they have had a short holiday — or, if the circumstances are such that you don’t think they need one — Matthew recommends riding them every day.
“Just a little work every day, so that part of their routine stays constant,” he says.
This is where the amateur rider who finds it impossible to ride every day may come unstuck — and why it’s often better that ex-racehorses have passed through the hands of one of the British Horseracing Authority’s recommended retrainers, who are specialists in preparing racehorses for a life outside racing. There is a great deal of useful information, including details of retrainers, on the Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) website (www.ror.org.uk).
Be careful what you feed them
People who aren’t used to racehorses may be surprised by the lean, fit look of a horse that has recently come out of training, and may make the error of trying to “feed it up”.
“It would be easy to get carried away and chuck food at them,” says Matthew. “They are used to three meals a day — minimum — with high amounts of protein. Their metabolisms are developed to use that protein, but doing our job isn’t nearly as physically demanding as racing and you need to replace that protein with fibre. Stick to the three meals a day, though, to help keep them in a routine they understand. When they relax in their brains, they will start to pick up and look well.”
Make the most of long-lining
Victoria starts her ex-racehorses new careers by long-lining them.
“I check their brakes and steering, and whether they can start and stop, from the ground, and move on to turns, serpentines and pole work so they aren’t stuck on one small circle as they would be on the lunge.
“If I do lunge I do it with two reins. You can do much more specific and varied work with more control of the body with two reins.”
A “babysitter” for hacking is useful
“I play it by ear as to when I get on them,” says Victoria. “If I’ve got a really exciting one and can’t wait to see how it feels, I’ll get on within four or five days, but probably just sit on and walk round the arena. I like to hack out early on, but that will depend on how good your hacking is — a busy main road might not be ideal.”
Racehorses trained in big centres like Newmarket will be well used to traffic, but those from in country yards with private gallops will not be. But very few of them will be used to hacking out alone without the rest of the string, so a “babysitter” is useful.
Victoria cautions: “Be careful — grass tracks look like gallops, and that is what they have been trained to do. Don’t expect ex-racehorses to react to certain things like other horses might.”
Give them time to get used to your leg aids
Victoria says many ex-racers have little understanding of leg aids and take time to adjust to the feel of a rider’s legs on their side.
“This can be a tricky phase and you just have to put your leg on, keep it there, hang on to the neckstrap and sit it out.”
But Victoria’s purchases mainly come off the Flat — Matthew, who has more experience of the National Hunt world, says that jumpers these days are often quite used to being ridden with relatively long stirrups.
“National Hunt jockeys don’t ride that short, and their legs are on during a race. And at home the stable staff don’t ride round like Lester Piggott — the chances are they’d end up on their arse pretty quickly!
“Lots of people have a misconception of people in racing yards — they may not know how to ride a dressage test but the standard of riding is good. They are used to riding a variety of horses, and have more natural feel than they are often given credit for.
“The majority of jumpers are much better educated than you’d think — often people who take on ex-racehorses think they need to rewrite everything their horse has learnt, and actually the most important things are to keep the horse in a routine it understands and to teach it one thing at a time.”
This article was first published in Eventing magazine (June 2015)